The Birth of Record Industry

Our Dr. D had a chance to chat with Mr. Shawn Borri who owns and runs the North American Phonograph Co., and related museum. This company is one of the first record production companies in the world, started back in the days when music and sounds were recorded on "wax" cylinders. One of the first things we learned is that term “wax” was actually referring to a special metallic soap...

Dr. D: I've never heard the term metallic soap before.

Borri: Edison invented that term when someone asked what they were made of. He invented Hello too. I mean Edison literally was the first to use the word. He used it for telephone greeting.

Dr. D: How does the process of cylinder recording work without electronics or amplification?

Borri: Acoustic recording is simply sound pressure created by a voice or instrument, going into a big horn. The horn is an impedance matching device and funnels the sound to a diaphragm typically glass, mica or copper. The diaphragm is attached a stylus typically a sapphire that is cylinder shaped with a sharp edge. The cutter is moved by a feed screw to make the grooves on the cylinder. The cutting stylus vibrates and the vibrations cut an up and down groove on the blank cylinder record.

To play it back the process is reversed, a playback stylus, which is smooth and ball shaped rides in the groove and the diaphragm push and pulls to the sound waves, and sound exits the horn and can be heard. The volume is a little louder than a person speaking and a frequency range of roughly 160-6000 Hz.

Dr. D: Who came first? Edison? RCA? Columbia?

Borri: Well Edison came out with the phonograph in 1877 starting with the tinfoil machine and marketed it though the Edison Speaking Phonograph Co.

Then in 1885 Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter improved it with ozocertie coated cardboard cylinders, marketing them though the Volta Laboratories. Which later became Columbia Phonograph Company.

Dr. D: I remember Volta.

Borri: Edison then improved the machine in 1888 with a solid wax cylinder which was more durable.

Then on March 29, 1888, Col. Jessie Lippincott combined Edison and Columbia into the North American Phonograph Company. By a secret agreement with Ezra Gillilland Edison's agent and Bell & Tainter.

The first song ever exhibited was The Pattison Waltz sung by soprano Effie Stewart, recorded February 25th, 1888 by Edison technician Theo Wangemann. It is one of the oldest surviving song recordings known to exist, which was just put into the National Recording Registry.

So, Bell & Tainter improved it before Edison, but then Edison further improved it and took the market away. In fact Columbia recorded on Edison blanks from 1889-1896. They could not figure out how to make there own.

Eventually Columbia came up with the formula similar to Edison's, so they could make there own blanks. It was Adolf Melzer who came up with the formula in 1895. He was a soap manufacturer from Evansville Indiana, who responded to Columbia's newspaper advertisement They were looking for a practical man who knows how to work with metalic soaps. Melzer worked from September 1894-December 31 1895 on duplicating the Edison formula for Columbia. Columbia paid him with a Graphophone for all that work.


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Dr. D: Did Edison patent his cylinder process?

Borri: No, he just kept is secret carefully. He patented some of the key things but the little details that make the thing work were not patented. In fact Columbia was not successful at duplicating Edison's formula for almost 6 years, they made lots of records on defective blanks that later fogged.

Dr. D: Then they found his chemist and bribed him, right?!

Borri: Oh they bribed people from the very beginning who worked in the record plant and hired them. Problem was, the guys did not know what the cylinders were made of.

Dr. D: Right, made in six different places...

Borri: They were told to put B and A and C together and melt it at such and such, but they did not know what it was.

Dr. D: Jack's Secret Sauce

Borri: Then the wax was made in blocks and sent to the molding plant and cast into blanks.

Dr. D: With strict accounting so they couldn't back door them.

Borri: Yes. Even the guy who purchased the materials did not know as he only purchased certain things. And another guy purchased other things.

You know a Concert cylinder (which was very large, 5" in diameter and 4 " long) sold for $3.00 in 1899 and a standard cylinder (smaller size, 4" long and 2 1/4 in diameter) was 50 cents.

Dr. D: Either amount is a lot of money for 1899!

Borri: That would be like going and paying $300.00 for one song today.

Dr. D: Yeah.

Borri: One song! But you were getting a master recorded by the artist directly.

Dr. D: What was the price of record players for home use?

Borri: Concert cylinder players were very expensive, those machines were $100 to $300.00 each. While a standard small cylinder home unit was $40.00. It was not until the 40.00 home that regular folks started to actually buy the records, prior to that it was the nickel in slot (jukebox machines) or at fairs and traveling exhibitions that the general public was able to hear recorded music.

Dr. D: How do you make distribution copies of cylinders?

From 1892-1895 records were tube copied, that is hooking 2 machines up, one with a master cylinder and the other with a blank and a hose running from a reproducer to a recorder. By 1896 or so they were pantographed with a recording and reproducing styli connection done mechanically with linkage and weights from master cylinder to blank cylinder. From 1888-1892 all standard records were masters. The concert records were masters or original recordings. I simply make blanks and record on them from CD masters.

Dr. D: How so?

Borri: When they went to gold molded records they vaporized gold on the cylinders. The process is just a bell jar with a vacuum pump, 2 pieces of gold leaf and a electric motor rotating a magnet. By 1902 the Gold molded process was used for mass produced records. They would take the cylinders, make a master mold, mother molds and then working molds.

Dr. D: Gold leaf is expensive.

Borri: Yes, and then later they simply coated the masters with super find graphite and then attached electrodes to the ends and they nickel plated them. I need to make that equipment to make molded cylinders. All mine are cut.

Dr. D: And discs stared when?

Borri: 1892 but they were horrible. Berliners sucked big time. Cylinders were a wax and the disc masters were zinc discs coated with fat and acid etched the groove where it was exposed, bad, bad sound. Solid wax was much better. I say wax, but I mean metalized soap. About 1900 they change over from zinc masters to a wax disc masters. In fact Berliner melted down Edison blanks for wax disc experiments. Discs started to be taken seriously about 1902 and 03 because of The Gramophone Company in England recordings of Erico Caruso.

Victor then purchased the painting of Nipper. They loved the painting, except for the fact that Nipper was listing to an Edison-Bell phonograph, so they asked him to paint a Gramophone over the Edison bell machine and it became the most recognized trademark!

Victor and Gramophone, with this gimmick and combo of good artists is the only reason disc took off and started to compete with the cylinder.

Edison still made cylinders up to 1929 and the last titles in that year were electronically dubbed from needle 78s.

Dr. D: When did they switch to lacquer?

Borri: I think about 1938 or so they started using lacquers...

North American Phonograph continues the tradition straight through to today by recording modern music acts on wax cylinder! Including the new moe Wormwood CDs track which is available at Sam Goodies, plus you can find recordings on line at The Edison Laugh Record:

For more information and pictures visit the North American Phonograph site:

Mr. Shawn Borri of the North American Phonograph Company, will be demonstrating methods of wax cylinder recording on the Edison Phonograph at the Berklee School of Music in Boston MA, on Wed., March 12 at 2:00 p.m. in their live studio space. All are welcome

Our Music Special Issues Continues With These Other Offerings:

Our Regular Music Reviews:
Featuring: Omar Sosa - Keith Jarrett - Melissa Gibson - G-Spot - Chronophonic

Articles and Information from the 2003 Music Special:
Grass Roots Music | US Copyright Extension | The Promo Pack | The ECD | The Music Video
The Birth of the Recording Industry | California Arts & Music Expo
Peformance Rights Organizations

Ecelectic and Underground CD Reviews:
Jon Denzene/The Torrent | Distilled | Hook The Captain | Jesse Morgan
Tesknota | Living Space | JM Cruiz

Indiana Area Local Club Bands:
Sonus | The Mumble | Northern Kind | Archies Address

Articles and Information from the 2002 Music Special:
Learning Music | Promo Pictures | Booking Agents| Managers | Producers | Pressing CDs
Record Companies | Copyrights | Recording Software | Sound Cards | Guitar and Bass
Multi-Track Recorders | Live Sound Gear | Microphones | Recording Engineer | Bands in Texas
Teen Band: Y@nK | Gigs and Clubs | Music Theory | Radio Airplay

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